March 1, 2004 | General

Airport Launches Food Waste Diversion Program

Kevin Drake, Sheryl Bunn and Dan Blue
BioCycle March 2004, Vol. 45, No. 3, p. 37
In January 2003, the Portland, Oregon International Airport (PDX) launched a food waste diversion pilot project to reduce landfilling. Twenty-one airport vendors – ranging from fast food to coffee shops and fine dining – are diverting preconsumer scraps and food-contaminated paper. In the first ten months, more than 60 tons of food waste was sent to Nature’s Needs, a local composting facility. What began as a voluntary pilot project has become a successful, ongoing program at PDX and a model for diversion at other large institutions.
The PDX program is the result of a unique partnership between the Port of Portland, Metro regional government and Community Environmental Services (CES), a student-based research and service organization at Portland State University that coordinates waste reduction and recycling projects throughout the region. In January 2002, PDX, a Port of Portland aviation facility, contracted with CES to conduct two waste characterization studies to gain a better understanding of its composition. The studies were done to guide PDX in meeting targets established as part of the Port’s Environmental Management System. The studies revealed that 35 percent of the PDX waste stream was comprised of compostable materials and that a significant amount of food waste and food-contaminated paper was being sent to the landfill each day.
At the same time, Metro (the region’s solid waste authority), the city of Portland and other local governments were working to identify options for increasing organics recovery, as food waste and other organic materials represent over 30 percent of the waste sent to landfill by the Portland metropolitan region. Currently, the city is looking at requiring commercial businesses that generate large amounts of food waste (such as large restaurants, hotels, institutional cafeterias and large retail grocery stores) to divert both pre and postconsumer food waste.
Around the time of the waste characterization studies for PDX, Metro was offering financial assistance through a matching grant program for food waste diversion projects. The Port teamed with CES to submit a proposal and was awarded a grant to set up a system to divert pre and postconsumer food waste at PDX. The grant funds helped offset the costs of new equipment and allowed the Port to partner with CES to design and implement the pilot and provide ongoing education and technical assistance to airport food and beverage vendors. The primary intent of the project was to implement a voluntary collection program prior to the adoption of any City ordinance mandating the practice.
The grant was for $35,500 and was matched with $51,000 by the Port of Portland. CES was paid $27,000 to develop and implement the pilot project at PDX, produce educational materials and provide ongoing monitoring and technical assistance to airport vendors. Due to the lack of regional infrastructure for collection and processing of postconsumer food waste, the food waste diversion pilot project has not resulted in any cost savings for the airport. However, the Metro grant offset first-year implementation costs by 40 percent. Once the regional system comes on line, annual costs of the PDX program should be reduced. Metro has already established a reduced-rate tip fee of $41 per ton for food waste and other organics, as compared to $73.00 per ton for landfilled waste, in hopes of providing economic incentives for organics diversion throughout the region.
PDX, like most airports, is characterized by multiple food vendors, complex security constraints, and severe space restrictions. Many different food waste diversion systems were researched and evaluated to determine the most suitable approach for the airport and a multitude of issues had to be considered.
Bags Or No Bags?
The decision was made early in the planning process to use liner bags for food waste collection containers. This was due to severe space restrictions, sanitary concerns and lack of vendor access to suitable areas for washing containers. Compostable bags were assumed to be the only types of bags that would be allowed by a food waste composting operation. However, the selected processor, Nature’s Needs, accepted food waste in standard plastic bags. Nature’s Needs accepts food waste from a variety of supermarkets and other large clients and already had systems in place to separate plastics from compostable materials. Since standard plastic bags are significantly less expensive than compostable bags, this was a preferable option for the pilot project. However, once the regional food waste collection and processing system is on line, it is expected that compostable bags will be required by a new postconsumer food waste processor.
Toss or Drop?
One unforeseen addition to the system was the design and construction of an elevated steel platform with a short set of steps, placed next to the drop box. This platform reduces the height that the bags have to be lifted (about waist level), making it much easier for vendors to drop the heavy bags of food waste into the modified drop box, rather than toss them in. The food waste drop box features a waterproof seal on the main doors, a sealed cover with hinged lids and clear signage.
Satellite Or Centralized?
The initial recommendation was to establish a satellite collection system with roll carts for each vendor. Vendors would transfer the roll carts to satellite collection areas staged near each of the main concourses. The roll carts would be serviced by a Port contracted staff person equipped with a collection trailer, then tipped into a roll off container via a mechanical cart tipper. However, after conducting on-site assessments of the physical needs at the airport, the decision was made to implement a food waste collection system that was much more congruent with existing centralized recycling and solid waste handling procedures. This shift conserved considerable financial resources that would have been expended on infrastructure improvements including roll carts, hydraulic lifting equipment, and a collection trailer.
Several external factors had an effect on the diversion potential of the pilot project. At the onset, there was a regional effort underway to site a new food waste composting facility within the region that would be permitted to accept both pre and postconsumer food waste. However, this effort has not yet come to fruition and there is still only one food waste composting facility in the Portland Metro area. The facility, Nature’s Needs, is only permitted to accept preconsumer, vegetative food waste and food-soiled fibers. As a result, PDX was only able to implement a preconsumer system to divert such materials as coffee grounds and filters, fruit and vegetable scraps, baked goods and paper towels. Until a regional food waste processor is up and running, meat and dairy products, plate scrapings and other nonvegetative and postconsumer food waste cannot be diverted.
Heightened airport security measure
es have also affected the generation of food residuals. Since sharp knives are no longer allowed beyond the security checkpoints, food prep is very difficult for vendors in secured areas. These restrictions have forced most food vendors to switch to purchasing preprepped vegetables and greens, which reduces the overall amount of food waste generated on-site at the airport by shifting it further upstream to food processing plants.
The food waste diversion pilot officially commenced the last week of January 2003. CES staff met with management and staff of each of the PDX food and beverage vendors over the course of three to four weeks. The purpose of each on-site meeting was to explain the project in greater detail; deliver containers, bags, educational materials and signage; tour kitchens and prep areas; and make recommendations about the strategic placement of collection containers. This also gave staff and managers an opportunity to point out potential problems or express concerns and allow CES staff to do some preliminary troubleshooting.
A wide variety of educational materials and signage was produced and distributed in order to serve the diverse group of food and beverage vendors. Multilingual (English and Spanish) posters were posted in kitchens and prep areas, listing and showing images of specific types of acceptable and unacceptable food waste with contact information for project staff. Detailed manager information sheets were given to managers along with “Food Waste Only” stickers. Since most airport vendors experience high employee turnover, informational sheets for employee “new hire” packets were developed in cooperation with managers for specific vendors.
The food waste collection system that was settled upon is extremely low tech and designed to complement the garbage and recycling system at PDX. Each food vendor was given blue seven-gallon Rubbermaid collection bins labeled with a “Food Waste Only” sticker and an initial supply of plastic liner bags. Containers were placed in kitchens, prep areas and near other garbage containers. As the containers filled up, vendor staff tie off the bags and place them in the same cart as their garbage and recyclables. Vendors were already responsible for transferring their garbage and recyclables to a centralized garbage and recycling area on the tarmac where drop boxes and compactors for a variety of recyclable materials are located. CES worked with the Port and the contracted hauler to locate an additional ten-yard drop box for food waste in this area. Vendor staff place the bags of food waste in the appropriate drop box, which is hauled twice weekly to Nature’s Needs. The Port pays their hauler a set fee for each haul, and pays a tip fee per ton at Nature’s Needs. Upon delivery of the food waste, Nature’s Needs staff cut open the bags of food waste, check for contamination and assimilate the material into their operation to be processed into a high-value soil amendment.
Once all food and beverage vendors had the necessary training and equipment, CES staff monitored food waste diversion activities at PDX two to three days per week. On-site monitoring included follow-up meetings with vendor staff and management and observation of specific materials being diverted, both in restaurant containers and in the central food waste drop box. After ten to 12 weeks, most vendors had become fairly comfortable with day-to-day food waste diversion activities and less frequent monitoring was required. Beginning in mid-April, on-site monitoring was scaled back to roughly one day per week. Interaction with vendors became more focused on soliciting feedback on the effectiveness of project media and equipment, troubleshooting vendor-specific diversion issues and providing vendors with project updates. While the frequency of on-site monitoring has decreased, the value of face-to-face interaction between project staff and vendors has been an integral part of the pilot’s success and will continue long into the future.
For the first two months of the project, CES staff closely observed the diverted food waste in order to monitor contamination and to become familiar with the types of food waste being diverted. When contaminants were noted, information was communicated back to the specific vendors to raise awareness among staff. Tonnage reports are emailed to the Port and CES on a weekly basis providing solid data for project tracking.
In the first ten months of the PDX food waste diversion program, more than 60 tons of nearly contaminant-free, preconsumer food residuals have been collected and diverted from the landfill. A diverse group of 21 food and beverage vendors are voluntarily participating in the program, diverting an average of 1.5 tons of food residuals from the landfill each week. The food waste diversion program has led to a three percent reduction (by weight) in the PDX waste stream. Additionally, during the September 2003 waste characterization study of the entire PDX stream, staff were instructed to look for prepped food scraps, coffee grounds and other evidence of preconsumer food waste still in the garbage. Based on staff observations, it was found that the food waste diversion program has nearly eliminated preconsumer food waste from the PDX waste stream.
In May 2003, CES conducted a waste characterization study of the diverted food waste to determine its composition and more accurately assess contamination rates. The same study was repeated six months later in November 2003 to account for possible seasonal changes in the composition of the diverted food waste. Composition of the diverted food waste has remained fairly constant between May 2003 and November 2003 and only mildly influenced by seasonality. Other significant findings were the exceptionally low contamination rate (less than one percent) and the high percentage of coffee grounds (67 percent), which continues to account for more than two-thirds of diverted food waste at PDX. The remaining third of the food waste stream is made up of produce (20 percent), baked goods (eight percent) and prepared foods, such as rice and noodles (four percent). Of the less than one-percent contamination, there were virtually no food contaminants, such as meat or table scraps. The most common nonfood contaminants were comprised mostly of plastic lids, noncompostable coffee cups and plastic food handler’s gloves.
It is also important to note that compostable fibers, such as coffee filters and paper towels, are also being diverted by PDX vendors. Based on findings from the more comprehensive waste characterization studies conducted for the entire PDX waste stream in January 2002 and September 2003, the percentage of compostable fibers has decreased by five percent.
The Port has also used Nature’s Needs compost, created in part from food waste collected from airport restaurants, in three PDX landscaped areas. This is a big step in closing the materials loop for PDX.
Another important outgrowth of the PDX food waste diversion pilot project has been the establishment of a unique partnership between the Port of Portland, Metro and CES. There is great potential for a continued alliance between these three entities on future waste reduction projects.
The transformation of the food waste diversion pilot project into a successful, ongoing program at PDX is the most significant outcome. The Port has renewed their contract with CES to provide ongoing monitoring, training and technical assistance to PDX vendors. At this time, PDX is believed to be the only airport in the country operating a successful food waste diversion program. It is hoped that the PDX food waste diversion program will serve as a model for waste reduction in other large institutions, businesses and airports around the country.
Kevin Drake is a graduate student at Oregon State University and project coordinator. Sheryl Bunn and Dan Blue are coproject managers at Community Environmental Services.
Laura Swanson
Currently in the Portland region, Nature’s Needs in North Plains has been permitted to accept preconsumer vegetative food waste for composting. The hauler, picks up vegetative residuals from several grocery store chains, delivering them to the site. Some of these grocers include New Seasons Markets, Albertsons and Safeway. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) reports that 11,958 tons of food waste were recovered in 2002 in the Portland wasteshed. The pilot program at the Portland airport also has been diverting preconsumer food residuals to Nature’s Needs.
Fred Meyer stores have vegetative waste collected by a local worm farmer, Dan Holcomb of OrAgGrow In the 3rd quarter of 2003, OrAgGrow reported collecting a total of 281.5 tons of food and bakery residuals. Feed Commodities picks up bakery waste and takes it to their animal feed plant in Tacoma, Washington.
Threemile Canyon Farms in Morrow County – approximately 150 miles east of the Portland Metro area – is not yet accepting food waste for composting. While they have received the local land use permit and the state’s DEQ permit for composting, final arrangements between the farm and Metro have not been finalized. The farm applied for grant funding jointly provided by the city of Portland and Metro to support the improvements needed to its composting operation in order to accept food waste. The farm is eligible to receive $500,000. A package of items were presented to the governing councils late in January which includes authorization to proceed with a grant and an ordinance to set a tip fee at Metro’s transfer stations of $41 per ton (which covers all direct costs of reload, transport and composting). Transportation scenarios are still being investigated, but it is likely that Threemile will do the transport themselves from Metro’s transfer station. “We will still need to negotiate and enter into a contract with Threemile for the transportation and composting of the food waste,” says Jennifer Erickson. “I expect this will be a 3-5 year agreement.” If the rate ordinance is adopted, there is a 90-day waiting period before it becomes “active”. “We expect to be able to have a rate in place and a program beginning most likely in May 2004,” says Erickson. The grant is being funded jointly by Metro and the city of Portland. Metro will provide about $300,000 and Portland close to $200,000. The dollars are derived from an organics business development fund that has been carried over for some years to assist with start-up costs of a facility. Funds originate from the Regional System Fee, which is paid on every ton of solid waste disposed in the region, and go to recycling and waste reduction programs. At press time, a final decision is still pending on awarding this grant.

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